The Story Behind Todd Phillips’ Unaired 1998 Documentary ‘Frat House’
Todd Phillips’ and and Andrew Gurland’s controversial 1998 documentary, “Frat House,” recently popped up online in full, which once earned the dubious distinction as “the only HBO documentary to be banned from broadcast.” The film chronicles fraternity life and pledging at the SUNY Oneonta chapter of Beta Chi before transitioning to Alpha Tau Omega at Muhlenberg College, where Phillips “pledged” himself. Though it debuted at Sundance and won a documentary award, the film never airred on HBO because it was filmed “on factually shaky ground.” Just be warned there’s a scene with a lap dancer that you might not want to watch on company time. After the jump, read about why exactly the film was so controversial when it first came out.
Wiki tells us that Phillips and Garland paid Alpha Tau Omega $1500 to film the pledge events and several members were paid $50 each to pretend to be pledges, as Muhlenberg College did not rush during the Spring “Frat House” was filmed. The president of ATO at Muhlenberg at the time called out the two directors in an interview:
“[The film was shot] in the spring of my sophomore year,” David Boelker recalls. “We don’t have pledges in the spring semester. You rush in the fall. We have sophomore deferment [at Muhlenberg]… [Phillips and Gurland] approached the house…They wanted to see if we’d participate in the filming… They offered us $1500 dollars for the chapter to participate at all. They offered the ‘pledges’ $50 each.” However, the pledges shown are not pledges at all, but brothers in the house eager to make $50. “The pledge master, ‘Dragon,’ was a junior while doing it…There were three or four guys in that fake pledge class that were older than him. One guy was from his class…One of the guys wasn’t even in the house. He was a house friend…It was not close to a real pledge class.”
Boelker goes on to describe the initial meetings with Phillips and Gurland. “They approached us and said they were making this documentary about two guys going from school to school, not really letting the time frame be known. They were trying to get into fraternities and failing miserably. ‘It’s a comedy,’ they said…They said they were trying to make the ’90s ANIMAL HOUSE. We didn’t know they were funded by HBO. They were just two independent filmmakers. Everyone kind of had the idea that [the film] wasn’t going anywhere. For all I knew, it was for a class… Maybe they got a grant from school or something. They said they were from NYU.”
“Phillips and Gurland came to our house and they wanted to film there. They said to us, ‘We have a budget, is there anything we can do for you guys.’ They bought us a disco ball for our party, and a couple of kegs. The two of them were always walking around town hitting on girls… They would say to girls stuff like, ‘if you suck my d*ck I’ll put you on TV,'” says Eric Stringer, now vice president of Sigma Alpha Mu at Oneonta.
“There were a couple of objectors in the house,” Boelker adds, “but they didn’t participate. Those that did had to sign release forms so that their image could be used.” “Before filming began, Phillips and Gurland signed a form themselves with witnesses saying that they wouldn’t include the name of the school or fraternity or use any identifying marks. The form also said that the events were staged and in no way reflect the behavior nor are they representative of our brotherhood or any single brother. The form wasn’t notarized, so it isn’t necessarily legally binding, however it does show intent.”
The Phillips and Gurland didn’t go into specifics on how they staged the film. Via the same article:
As for the issue of staging scenes, Phillips and Gurland will not get into specifics. While categorically denying scenes were coached, they point to the works of such controversial impresarios as N
ick Broomfield and Michael Moore, saying “many” documentaries include reenactments. “So if we did it,” Phillips retorts, “we’d be fine to say that.” In the opinion of Jonathan Stack, codirector of THE FARM (which shared the documentary prize with FRAT HOUSE), every “nonfiction” filmmaker wrestles with the question in every shot. He asks: “Is it staging if I’ve asked a subject to move from the first cell to the third cell because the lighting is better, otherwise I can’t capture it on tape? I guess there’s all levels of degrees.”
On why HBO ultimately decided to not air the film:
In June, following months of phone calls, ATO National and IFC officers held a summit meeting with Nevins and a few other HBO senior personnel in New York and presented what they considered conclusive evidence that the “pledges” in the Muhlenberg footage were anything but. Shortly after this meeting, HBO nixed the August airdate and stepped up its own investigation. Interns logged all outtakes, which Phillips and Gurland turned over in April at HBO’s request-an unusual procedure. The directors had meetings with Nevins and others and were asked to account for several discrepancies. The auteurs insist their movie is fixable-and that HBO hasn’t given them a proper chance to amend it. “So, okay, we’ll change the voice-over,” Phillips argues. “Tell us what you want, we want the movie to air. Nothing is big enough that it negates the veracity of the film. Trust us.” Among their plans, they propose buying FRAT HOUSE back from HBO (Nevins flatly says that won’t happen), incorporating changes into it-including all IFC and ATO objections-and releasing it as a feature.
Unable to sort out the accusations conclusively, HBO execs say they have no choice but to leave the prizewinning film in limbo. “Our reputation is at stake,” says Nevins. “It would be great if all the questions went away and we could run this film. But it doesn’t look like that will happen… It’s beyond RASHOMON. There are not three or four stories at odds. There’s a hundred and five.”
“It gets cloudier rather than clearer,” Nevins says dejectedly. She feels that Phillips and Gurland “find all this funny. To them it’s publicity, and all publicity is good. I find it so sad that they were so close to a truth, and had they tried, they probably could have gotten it by admitting what they were doing to the audience. But they couldn’t be honest.”
Lastly, Phillips explained the controversy surrounding the documentary in a VICE interview:
The controversy stems from one thing. When you turn your cameras on the sons and daughters of rich white Americans, you’re going to get heat for it. HBO has made many award winning documentaries and they’ve all been about pimps and whores and strippers and crack and taxi-cab confessions and blah blah blah. They’ve been easy targets. They’ve made movies about skinheads and anti-abortion maniacs. Important movies, but movies about the fringe of society. The fringe, I feel, are easy targets, but Frat House is about upper-class white Americans whose parents are lawyers and doctors and politicians. It sounds like I’m spewing crazy paranoid controversy theory, but it’s true. And when you do that movie, these people, who have many resources, will threaten to sue. You’re either fight that battle or not, and HBO has chosen not to fight that battle. That’s the controversy. It’s a shame – they own the copyright, they funded the entire movie, so I’ve no option.
What did the kids accuse you of exactly?
These kids said they redid things five times. Not once. Never did I even say, “Oh wait, walk through the door again.” Which will happen in documentaries all the time. But we didn’t even do that. That’s not the way I do a movie. What people don’t understand about good documentary filmmaking is, it’s screenwriting. You write the movie before you show up. And you manipulate everybody in the room to say exactly what you want them to say. That, I’m guilty of. That is how I make documentaries. ‘Cause you know what? Fly on the wall filmmaking has gone out the window, because people are too aware of the power of the camera. To me, documentaries are now about manipulation. It’s sad but true. You go in knowing exactly what you want and you come out with exactly what you want. That’s just manipulation, and that I’m guilty of.
In the fall of 2011, Joseph Harris Laudadio a.k.a. “Blossom” from Beta Chi issued this apology to Andrew Gurland over YouTube: